This morning I have been experiencing an emotional roller coaster… as I am cycling through tens of people as I accidentally connect to them. Some gurus, Murakami, his wife, a marketing guru, my next door neighbor, my brother, some students, a site visitor from Hungary, my architecture school friend.
I can feel my face, my mouth… and I can recognize the micro expressions and identify them.
And then, of course, the emotions of my own reaction to their internal state… judgment, compassion, pity, sympathy… I don’t with my life to my worst enemy.
I could write an article, a whole article, about each of them, but I’ll write about a word that screwed up countless lives… and probably still is.
As you know, a large period of my life I was an architect. Architecture school, in Hungary, is something you choose after high school, and it’s a five year study, every person takes the exact same classes.
The favorite or dreaded word of an architecture student was “talented” or “not talented”.
I remember wondering if I was talented. We threw the word around like a knife thrower… not worrying about who gets wounded or killed in the process.
Knowing what I know now… and I mean “now”… yesterday I would not have been able to see what I am seeing now… this was a very harmful word.
It had a finality to it. A death sentence or a life sentence.
- If you were declared talented, you started to depend on your “talent” to make it in life.
- If you were declared “not talented”, you were miserable.
- And if you were wondering about that… well, you were screwed too: you spent most of your time in your head.
We, architecture students, had not enough powers of distinction and discernment to be able to say who was talented and who wasn’t. So where did we look? We looked at the ease with which on drew, the flare with which one sketched.
Some people who came from architectures high school were great at it.
We thought they were talented. Some even sold themselves to others later in life, as I am hearing.
The rest of us had no flare.
What we didn’t know is that in four years these other students developed skills that we could have practiced, had we not thought that they were signs of practice.
I have written about Gary Keller whose coach told him to practice scales on his guitar: that was the fastest way to mastery.
When you play the guitar, your skills don’t get better. Only practicing scales…
I remember when I was doing desktop publishing: I instinctively practiced the different moves with the mouse… for hours and hours and hours.
I appeared to others as a wiz… but it was really the specialized practice I found time to do.
When I learned English, I drilled hours and hours and hours and more hours. Foreigners who learn through immersion speak pitifully wrong English, and don’t know what is what. Many natives speak it just as poorly.
No skill in the structure, the grammar, the rules of the language.
Some of my students consider themselves slow. And because slow is a lot like “not talented”, they never developed skills to get faster, if they wished.
It is true that being able to do things faster is useful… but it is a skill! In fact an amalgamation, the end result of several skills.
But if you don’t know that, you won’t work on the component skills, you’ll be like the donkey in Winnie the Pooh… who is sad because he lost his tail. forever sad, forever grieving.
Most of the things I teach are useless as knowledge, and useful as skills. A way to look at life, at yourself, at facts, at others, at situations.
A skill… a skill to see what is mostly invisible to most people.
Nothing to learn, lots to master.
But as long as you think it is learning, as long as you think you hear it and then you know it, you got nothing. You got the whiff of a good meal… none of the nurture, none of the nutrition.
Whether you are smart, talented, or stupid and talent-less.
PS: Here is a little tale I just got in my email… this is how serendipity works…
Getting over the fear of judgement about imperfect work is just part of the process when trying to master any tough skill.
To illustrate this point, she told me a true story about an unconventional ceramics class:
A pottery teacher decided to run an experiment on her beginner students by splitting the class into 2 separate evaluation groups.
Group A was graded on the quality of a single pot. Nothing too unusual about that, right?
Well, here’s the kicker. Group B was evaluated on the number of pots they produced throughout the entire class.
The difference in the final pot quality between the two groups was stunning!
“…while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
– Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
So what’s the moral of that story?
You always learn best by doing, not theorizing.
Just accept the fact that you’re going to ship some crappy metaphorical pots in the beginning – just like this email you received from me.
If you stick with it long enough, you’ll eventually master whatever skill you’re seeking.